I have been sketching and painting birds for as long as I’ve been birding. Initially, it was simply in an attempt to capture and solidify my experiences of birds. A celebration of that bird, in that place, at that moment – and the few seconds of its life that it shared with me. As my interest in birds became more developed and honed, I started to notice more and more variations, which brought me to the realisation that each bird is an individual, with its appearance governed by a whole range of temporal and spatial influences. I started documenting these sometimes subtle, sometimes remarkable deviations from the field guides, and filled up notebook after notebook with annotated sketches.
Especially for birds we see every day (perhaps a little less so for the occasional once-in-a-lifetime rarity) our brains automatically only store the smallest possible amount of visual information necessary to fit an observation to a search image. Sketching birds overrides this instinct, by forcing you to look closer, and remembering more. I really believe this is the most effective way of improving your birding prowess, and I highly recommend it. Remember, the product is not important. What counts is the process.
My earlier artworks were exclusively pencil or pen sketches. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked with watercolours and gouache, but always felt rather restricted and frustrated by the practicalities of these mediums: waiting for paint to dry, washing brushes, mixing the perfect tones, curling of wet paper, storage and care of physical paintings, coffee spills, and so on. When I started illustrating my LBJs book in my late twenties, I discovered digital painting and a whole new world opened up for me.
I remember chatting to a sweet old lady one night, at dinner after a long day in the field. I explained the whole process of digital painting to her, trying to avoid jargon such as tablet, stylus, CMYK, colour profiles, and the like. Upon conclusion of my monologue, she remarked “Oh, so it doesn’t require any artistic talent then?” I had to stifle a laugh, because just like in any other medium, producing a digital painting requires a great deal of artistry, and more importantly, practice.